Using Character to Generate Story

Entry points into creating stories differ for everyone. I’ve mentioned before that I come at stories from the characters, and that I write character-driven books. What this means is that, rather than “what if this cool idea” or “what if this cool magic,” I start with “what if this character premise.”

My novels are high concept, but my entry point to those ideas begins from a character and spirals out from there—and with every piece of the story I craft, I always go back to character.

Looking at some of my finished books, say with Tea Princess Chronicles, I started with the idea of a princess who quits and ends up managing a magical tea shop. For Afterstorms, I started with a woman who is both a badass sorceress while actively doing the work of mothering and also gets to have a romance. For my YA space opera, I basically asked, what if Gundam actually had a girl as the protagonist who gets to pilot the super awesome space mech?

And so on. The types of stories those became, the world-building, the themes borne out in them (things like what it means to do something in the world that matters and incremental activism, how societies try to make women lesser, and embracing the power that comes with upending people’s expectations and not walking a proscribed path, respectively)—they all started from those premises .

But how do I translate an idea for a character into a story?

Broadly, to know how the story arc works, I need to know who the character is at the beginning, which tells me who they are at the end—or vice versa. If they’ve come into their power at the end, then at the beginning they believe themselves powerless. They’re insecure about their place in the world at the beginning; they’re confident at the end.

And then I figure out what choices, and what actions to hang them on, would bring them from that beginning point to the ending. But that still takes a few leaps; albeit ones I can make these days out of longstanding practice, because figuring out character is really easy for me. It’s what I read for and what I write for. That said, being very into character development is not the same as being able to plot, so let’s talk about how you get from one to the other.

Here’s one of my favorite tactics.

Back when I was doing a lot of theater, one of the techniques I learned for how to dig into character was Uta Hagen’s questions. With some additions, these can be useful not just for understanding character, but understanding the relationship between character, world-building, plot, and story. These are the questions I focus on, with my adaptations.

What does your character think they want? (Let’s say, to be a hero.)

What do they actually want? (Hmm. How about security? They want to be a hero because they think the respect of masses will make people value them and protect them.)

What are the given circumstances? (Our character is alone, because war has destroyed the political and physical infrastructure of their world.)

What is preventing them from getting what they want? (An occupying force.)

What will they do—and what can they do—to get what they want? (Gather a ragtag crew to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.)

My parentheticals there aren’t the most original—they are in fact deliberately tropey as shit; can you tell I’m an epic fantasy reader and shounen anime fan?—because that’s not the point at this stage. The point is highlighting the fundamentals that make up the core of the story, and the logic of the story, to flesh out with what makes it yours.

Answering these questions doesn’t create an entire story on its own, but it does give me the basis for the subsequent questions I need to answer to make a story happen.

Like, okay, the protagonist is going to need a team—how do they assemble it? What unique skills does our protagonist have that would actually be useful in overthrowing an army, or attract people to be willing to work with them, and how do they acquire those skills? If they haven’t taken up arms before the start of the plot, why now? What changed, and why did it change?

Let’s take the starter questions in order.

The first two questions (What does your character think they want, and what do they actually want?) are key for interesting character development, because this is how you change expectations for not entirely predictable plots. What your protagonist thinks they want changes, and they get what they actually want (or need, which is an important distinction somewhat tangential to this post) in a way they could not have dreamed of at the beginning but that their actions throughout the plot nevertheless make inevitable.

Given my hypothetical parentheticals there, let’s say your protagonist discovers sacrificing themselves for the sake of a corrupt government might make them a hero in the public eye given the levels of propaganda management, but it would be empty and wouldn’t actually make them safe. But they make friends along the way who will protect them for who they are at whatever cost, so they choose to save their imperfect friends rather than the figureheads of society. They don’t become a hero at large but to the only people that matter, and they get their security in the way that’s meaningful to them. That sort of thing. (If you’re looking for practical published examples, Brandon Sanderson excels at this.)

The important part of “the given circumstances” question is that they have to be personal to the character. It’s not just “war has torn apart a country” but “war has left the character alone, and the character desperately wants to not be alone.”

Firstly, because if the stakes aren’t personal, nobody cares. Secondly, this is how your world-building and your point-of-view character are inextricably linked.

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum (or a white room >_>); they are born in their environments, and those environments shape and affect them even if they don’t define them. If they don’t, then the character won’t feel compelling but vague. If you think your character could exist exactly the same born into an entirely different fantasy world, they’re probably not sufficiently defined. (See also a unique challenge inherent to AU fanfic: how to make the characters still make sense to the reader when the setting they were created with is entirely substituted.)

Asking what actions the character can take, and the reasons they need to take them (what prevents them from getting what they want), are where we come to plot.

What are the tools your protagonist has to change their situation?

If your character’s a sorceress, maybe she’s solving problems using magic—in which case the readers may need to understand more about how magic works, be it the system’s rules that they’re breaking or that numinous magic is fickle so having to rely on it working is A Problem—for your stakes to work. If they’re a political operator, readers probably need to know how the politics work, so we can feel satisfied when they’ve managed something tricky without needing an explanation that slows pacing in the moment of why what they did was so clever.

Tea Princess Chronicles was my first time writing about a protagonist who isn’t some kind of magical martial arts action heroine. Her strength, established in chapter one, is listening, which I physically manifest through how I depict the fantasy tea ceremony.

For another example, I love Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker series for being stories of action and adventure and all kinds of magical battle shenanigans where the plots ultimately always hinge on the “nice” protagonist meaningfully exercising compassion.

As for the question of what actions a protagonist will take—that’s where the story is.

This answer doesn’t have to be, “what would drive them to kill the person oppressing them,” as is so common in epic fantasy; it can just as easily be, “they will focus their time and energy on building relationships.” See Mirage by Somaiya Daud for a great example of this one: her protagonist could easily become a violent rebel or a pawn of the oppressive regime, yet what she chooses is neither of those—she makes another path that is ultimately the only one that makes sense for her character.

Given a person in a particular situation who can do certain things, what will they choose to do, and why, and what does that mean? That’s the core of it all.

orange cat and black cat lying on different parts of me and looking incredibly smug
disparate elements working in tandem toward a narratively coherent goal aka trapping me

Agency Failures in Plotting

Raymond Chandler once wrote of plotting, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Like most writing advice, this is useful to a point. When someone gives the writing advice of “kill your darlings,” the point is not to cut all the things you like about your story; it’s to cut the things you’re hanging onto because you like them but that don’t actually fit coherently in this particular story. When they advise, “write every day,” the point is (or should be, sigh, that’s another blog) to commit to making structural changes in your life that enable you to write consistently, not that if you don’t work on stories every day that you’re not a Real Writer.

But every time NaNoWriMo rolls around, I see upticks of people who have interpreted Chandler’s Law as a mandate to just keep throwing exciting things at the page until you have enough words to call it a story, or until you get through the part where you didn’t know what happened and then you’ll find yourself at the real story, which is… generally not how stories work.

A Twitter discussion last week about plotting (PS Elizabeth Bear is very smart about stories and has a substack newsletter you can follow) got me wanting to expand on how I think misunderstandings of this axiom can create problems in the plot rather than solving them.

The most common failure mode of plotting I read in fantasy is actually a failure of character agency.

(Requisite caveats before I get going here that I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who vastly prefers character-driven to plot-driven stories, an axis which is in some sense an arbitrary and nonsensical distinction but one that can nevertheless be useful for analysis. YMMV. As with all writing commentary, if my approach on this subject isn’t useful to you, discard it; no advice is universal. Onwards!)

Here’s why plotting can actually indicate an agency problem: a plot is not just “things that happen.” A quick Google search gives the definition of plot as “the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.”

There are two key phrases here. The first is “the main events,” which seems self-explanatory. The more important one is “an interrelated sequence.”

Random events are not a plot. If the things that happen don’t have story resonance, the story is unsatisfying: nothing feels like it matters, because nothing does matter when it’s not meaningfully related to everything else.

The most common way I see this failure mode of Chandler’s Law play out in stories is when characters are just reacting. An explosion comes through the window, so then they have to escape! But then the escape to a place where a monster is waiting for them, so they have to run again! Then the nearest hideaway just happens to be the villain’s lair, where they have to perform Some Filler Caper to get inside but then conveniently stumble upon a villainous intent monologue?? And so on.

There are ways to make this work—almost anything can work in the right circumstances—but the question the author has to be able to answer is why. Why did the villain cause an explosion, if lacking that explosion the main character wouldn’t have acted? Why did they choose to go to the place with the monster? Now that they know the villain’s raison d’etre, what are they going to do about it besides wait for the next explosion?

So, there are two principles at play here. The first is that, protagonist or antagonist or side character, characters should do things for reasons that make sense given the knowledge they have.

If the villain had reason to believe the protagonist was already working against them and so was trying to take them out, this may be a good reason for the explosion. But just having an explosion because the author needs to get the character moving doesn’t work without narrative reasoning. (Nothing wrong with writing the explosion first to facilitate making words happen and then coming up with the reasoning afterward! But the reasoning still has to exist and make sense.)

Corollary: the narrative should make us aware of that reasoning.

If our main character is like, oh shit the villain probably believes I’m working against them even though I want nothing to do with this because of that thing they saw in my office!, cool. It can even work retroactively (protagonist: I wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t exploded my house! antagonist: I didn’t know you were innocent then, but you certainly aren’t now!).

What doesn’t work: Our protagonist going, gosh, I wonder what we should do now? Hmm. Hmmmmm. Oh hey look, the plot has exploded through my window, even though this would not make any sense given what we eventually learn of the villain’s goals!

Which brings me to the second principle, which is: reacting isn’t enough if it doesn’t eventually result in action.

There is a separate but related discussion to be had about what agency even is in storytelling. There are ways to write passive protagonists, or protagonists whose choices are so circumscribed by their environments that so is their ability to act (for an excellent example of the latter, read Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri).

But if the plot is always having to come through the window explosively at the protagonist to get them to do something, and once that impetus is done they’re always idly waiting for the next impetus, it’s not the character driving the story.

It’s easy for me to get bored by this kind of narrative, because it’s not the point-of-view characters making it happen. That level of disconnection from choices creating effects with narrative relevance leaves me wondering why this story matters. Why are we reading this version of events, from this perspective?

An example I love to hold up when talking about with how agency works is The Goblin Emperor by Katharine Addison aka Sarah Monette. This is in part because the protagonist doesn’t for the most part take the physical actions people often associate with fantasy—he’s not a fighter or a wizard. So what actions does he take? Being entirely trapped within a political framework, it’s the conversations and how he manages them, the people he chooses to reach out to—or reject—and why, that make this story go. The people he uplifts, that he focuses on building bridges (literally and figuratively!)—this is what makes the story work. He does react to events that come at him from outside, but he doesn’t just react: even while reacting, he is always making choices toward being the person he wants to be, figuring out whether it is possible and how to accomplish his goals.

Here’s another way to look at it: Chandler’s Law is fine as far as it goes. There is nothing wrong with an explosion coming through the window and the characters having to escape. But how they escape should matter. It should tell us something about who the character is, and not just what they can do, but they will and won’t do. That explosion should also affect what they decide to do next—and begin doing!—rather than just waiting for another explosion to show up.

It’s not enough to have a man come through the door with a gun to make your plot happen. The man has to be relevant, and so does what the protagonist does about the situation.

Relevant to what? How do you make the plot matter? That’s where we get back to basics.

What’s the core of the story you’re trying to tell?

Is it an action-adventure coming-of-age story, where our protagonist learns their own power? Or is it an action-adventure where our protagonist ultimately learns they’re “powerless to amend a broken world” (many thanks to GGK for that phrase) and becomes an antihero? Or a spy caper full of daring adventures where the real friends are the ones we make along the way, including our enemy-to-ally who came through the door with a gun? Or is it a political romance, and the enemy with a gun becomes enemy-to-lover?

You’ve got options. My choice always comes back to character, because the character development I want my protagonist to have dictates how the story goes. But you can equally well make these decisions based on what actions thematically serve the world-building idea you’re exploring or that develop the cool magic you want to explode at the end. The man coming through the door with a gun isn’t what makes the story; it’s how that fits.

So it behooves you to ask, why this thing, and not something else? “Because it’s cool” is a good starting reason, but only if it can be made to matter to the story you’re trying to tell.

Why is your protagonist the protagonist, and not someone else?

(Someday I would like to read an orphan farmboy protagonist who gets to be the main character because his unique skill at cultivating rare turnip varieties is critical to saving the world and not because he is The Chosen One. But I digress.)

What can the protagonist do, and what will they do, that no one else will?

If your protagonist is reluctant to do protagonist things, why did you choose them? What would make them actually take action—by which I mean, make choices that affect the narrative—on their own initiative? Because they’ll need to, for the story to be satisfying.

A plot is not just events that occur; it’s a sequence of interrelated events. And a story with point-of-view characters who only react to events without making choices that affect them is a story with agency problems. Because while character and plot may be two different things, if they’re not working together, the story may not be working as intended, either.

For more on how I actually use character to create plot that does tie in, continue on to the next post!

black cat and orange cat curled on opposite sides of a coffee table which divides a sunbeam
protagonist and antagonist making interrelated choices